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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Life imitates art? Or vice-versa?

So, last time I posed the question of why the second Lord of the Rings movie seems to have touched so many people on an emotional level and whether it has a message for our current troubled times. Even its very title, The Two Towers, amounts to an eerily amazing coincidence that seems calculated to evoke the memory of September 11.

First, I think it is safe to say that the late Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien would be horrified to think that his work of literature might be used as argument in favor of war. And I think it is even safer to say that the many, if not most or even all, of the people involved in the making of the movie adaptation did not foresee nor would they want their work to be seen as some sort of argument for an attack on Iraq. Still, sometimes a work of literature turns out bigger than the people who created it, and it may carry lessons that authors, directors and actors did not intend.

Seen in that light, the story depicted in The Two Towers contains striking similarities to the current world situation. The villain of the piece is deliberately amassing weapons of mass destruction and is desperately seeking the ultimate weapon. Among the peoples of the world, a few are doing everything they can to disarm him. Others are hiding their heads in the sand and refusing to acknowledge the growing danger. They hope that, if they do not cause trouble, their lands will be overlooked and left alone. In one case, the ruler is actually under the influence of an agent of the enemy. Our heroes struggle valiantly to revitalize old alliances that have grown weak and unsure, as this is the world’s only hope to defeat evil. Will they succeed? Just as in real life, that answer will unfold over the coming year.

Arguably, the most stirring images in the film are the ones where the people of Rohan huddle in the caves of their refuge at Helm’s Deep. Old men and young boys reluctantly join the warriors in a last bid to defend their families against the hordes amassed against them. On one hand, this is a harrowing portrait of the horrors of war. But more specifically, it is an image of what happens when war is brought to one’s own land. Baghdad has known this horror in the recent past. And so has New York.

Upon its initial publication, many people thought that The Lord of the Rings was an allegorical re-imagining of World War II. Tolkien said it wasn’t, noting that the plot was well established in his mind and notes before that war occurred. Still, the parallels to that period are even more striking than the current one. Hitler was clearly more a monster of Sauron-like proportions than Saddam Hussein has proved to be so far. And King Théoden is a more comfortable fit for Neville Chamberlain than for, say, Gerhard Schroeder or Jacques Chirac.

Interestingly, I happened to catch Alistair Cook’s (yes, he’s still alive) “Letter from America” segment on the BBC World Service last weekend, and he focused on the stunning similarities between the debates in the 1930s over Germany and the current ones over Iraq. He noted a striking number of phrases used in both cases. I thought he was leading up to something profound, but in the end he refused to come down for or against action or “appeasement.” But he is worth listening to anyway, since World War II is not merely history for him. He was already a mature man when the war broke out.

Okay, so Colin Powell did not work a magical change over the other members of the UN Security Council the way Gandalf did with King Théoden. They went ahead and read statements that were prepared before they even heard Powell’s speech. Real life is usually not like the movies.

Still, the power of the story of The Lord of the Rings is undeniable. Sometimes there is evil in the world. And sometimes good people have to fight to stop it. Otherwise, their families and everything they hold dear could really be lost. The problem is that, since World War II, the world has become a bit more complicated. Before that, most people could get by on assuming that their own government was in the right. Since the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, thoughtful people have had to ask themselves: are my leaders of the same ilk as Gandalf and Aragorn? Or could this government be the next Sauron? It is a sign of a civilized society that the question is at least posed.

The record thus far is clear. While the American government is not without blood on its hands nor is it morally pure, its record can’t be seriously compared to that of the brutal Iraqi regime. In the past decade or so, America’s military adventures have generally been on the right side of things. Who can question whether it was right or wrong to oust Iraq from Kuwait? Or to intervene in Serbia’s bloody rampage in Kosovo? And can anyone really argue that Afghanistan was better off under the Taliban than with the current situation, as bad as it might be? Should the U.S. really have stayed on the sidelines in all these cases?

This doesn’t mean that attacking Iraq now is necessarily smart or necessary. I certainly won’t mourn when Saddam is finally out of power. But whether this is the right time for the civilized world to confront him will only be crystal clear after the war is over, or averted. The fact is, the lessons of history get to be written by the winners. Have you ever wondered how The Lord of the Rings would read if Sauron had actually gotten a hold of the one ring of power and totally dominated Middle-earth and had gotten to write the history of the war? Somehow, I don’t think it would have been nearly as compelling.

But enough about The Lord of the Rings. Next week: what does Star Trek tell us about the current world situation?

-S.L., 6 February 2003

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